When I turned 22, I decided that I wanted a boyfriend.
There was no logical reason for this, except that, barely old enough to strut past bouncers with my valid ID, I was wrapping up my final months in the Navy. I’d gone in right after high school, and Uncle Sam had held me on a tight leash; I spent four years squirming in ranks like a rambunctious puppy. Civilian freedom felt like the popped cork of a shaken champagne bottle. I was facing college, a career, and the option to book it to Timbuktu, if I pleased. So, looking back now, I’m stumped as to how my heart mustered the desire to bounce from one commitment to another.
Maybe a boy was the aspirin for my hangover — from booze and life. The two went hand in hand for me in those days. At 21, I was residing in the ideal habitat for novice bar-hopping. My overpriced, two-bedroom, 550-square-foot apartment was parked between Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and I gleefully crashed in the hub of beer bongs and body shots. It didn’t matter that my living room was within arm’s reach of my bed, because I was also stumbling distance from Corona-littered white sand, and a cheap cab fare away from the drunken, surfer-soaked Garnet strip. I was surrounded by chivalrous neighbors who never wore shirts and always had a line of cocaine or two to lend.
But after a year of Jägerbombs that ended too often in barefoot staggers into parties I would never remember, and one too many walks of shame from this or that musician’s beer-stained sofa, I urgently wanted to curl up in a fetal position.
In hopes of decaffeinating my lifestyle, I moved to Pacific Beach’s older brother, Ocean Beach. Though still seaside, and only four miles south, O.B. seemed the ideal safe harbor for a P.B. recovery, while still having perks: pubs, salty air, and wave-crashing melodies. Mellow, dread-locked hippies replaced amped frat boys. While P.B. was a line and a shot, O.B. was a joint and a beer.
For the first time in my life, I lived roommate free. My digs were one of a coastal complex of six studios, and my neighbors were young professionals living out those years between Tuesday night keg stands and white picket fences. I took on an adult routine of work and the gym and healthy, semi-cooked Trader Joe’s dinners. I gave myself pats on the back for staying in on weeknights. I relished my newfound adult routine, but I also took note of the unoccupied space in my bed.
Living alone, social media was my cure for isolation. It had been four years since I’d left my Tennessee upbringing behind, and I’d been sparring with South vs. Southern California culture clash ever since. Initially, the differences were as trivial as my thighs touching. But once my country twang morphed to valley girl, and I accepted my Barbie-post-freshman-15 physique, I found myself rattled by other comparisons to my homeland.
Photos of frilly white dresses, pastel-frocked bridesmaids — and of cake-cutting, champagne-sipping, and bouquet-diving — accompanied every Facebook login. They all looked the same to me. A blushing bride, a girl I remembered from high school, with highlighted hair professionally curled to correspond with a freshly spray-tanned complexion. A bouquet composed in shades of rose, blush, and ruby. The girl was always surrounded by gushing sorority sisters and former, familiar-faced high-school cheerleaders. Soon enough, maternity shots followed, with the brides now wearing church-appropriate blouses, their eyes closed, faces pointed down at their protruding bellies. They stood curled against their husbands in an upright spoon.
My initial reaction was “Holy hell, those girls are way too young for marriage and babies.”
I’d gather with my single girlfriends and fellow So-Cal transplants, all of us raised in the in-betweens of America’s urban hubs. Through vodka-soda sips, we’d rant about the fates of our childhood opponents. To think that the popular girls we’d once idolized were now tossing their lives into the pit of suburbia. How awesome we were to be so independent.
“By the time we’re 30 and ready to settle down,” we’d scoff, “they’ll be ending their second marriages with a whimpering brat on each arm.”
My voice was often the loudest in these discussions. Maybe I was the head cheerleader of our state of denial.
The truth is, my Southern roots factored into who I was. It would always feel rude to dismiss a request to RSVP, or to show up at a social gathering uninvited. When nobody was within earshot, I still pumped up the volume on the country music station, and “y’all” never escaped my vocabulary. But while I didn’t have a single betrothed acquaintance on the West Coast, my childhood playmates’ marital sprees made had me wondering if I was meant to follow them, stepping in the same way into adulthood.
Dating felt like a healthy compromise.
I’d never really dated before. Rather than take me out to the movies or to prom prom, my high-school boyfriends usually courted me with bong hits and back seats. And since moving to San Diego, I hadn’t sampled much of the local flavor. My first two years were spent chipping paint on a destroyer and looping in and out of Navy ports. I lived on the ship, so in those days I stuck to sailors. Then I moved to P.B. and drowned myself in beach-town debauchery. I wanted casual, and casual had come as easily as my legs spread. But by the ripe old age of 22, lust, along with the rest of P.B., had lost its luster.
That summer, in addition to changing my location, I vowed to mature my relationships. By no means was I constructing blueprints for wedding bells, but I wanted dinner, good conversation, and long walks on the beach. I was ready to forfeit the game of musical chairs in exchange for routinely spooning with one familiar person.
I was certain I knew what I was getting into. Sure, San Diego was a party town. The locals were less structured, more laid back. People settled down later in life here than in rural America, so commitment was gradual. I wasn’t expecting over-the-top displays of flowers and plunges to open my car door. But I was filled with optimistic enthusiasm.
Dan (not his real name — all of the names in this story are pseudonyms) was an East County boy, and what I’ve observed is that the people of East County take pride in their indifference to the rest of the city. They don cowboy hats and sip Budweiser. They own houses with air-conditioning and swimming pools, and they will occasionally snicker at the extra grand of monthly rent their coastal neighbors fork up to live a whopping 15 minutes west.
I expected Dan to be anti-stereotypical San Diego, and in many ways he was. Raised on a small Ramona horse farm by his construction-contractor dad and schoolteacher mom, Dan came off as the boy next door — an endangered species in So-Cal. He stood six-foot-two with a medium, softish build, and had sun-flushed skin, sandy brown hair, and a sincere, comforting smile. Dan was mildly handsome, yet easy to overlook. A San Marcos Communications graduate, he’d struggled in the job market, eventually surrendering to a construction gig with his father. He was the type of guy who seemed content to nestle into ease and familiarity and mediocrity, rather than dream. His humor, which made complete strangers feel as if he were an old high-school buddy, was his greatest attribute. So, of course I became blindly, pathetically, and almost obsessively infatuated with him.
For our first date Dan picked me up in a late-’90s Chevy pickup that he called Big Red. He also referred to the truck as “she” and occasionally patted her as if she were a beloved dog. Dan was nicely attentive. He opened every door for me and even reached across my lap to fix my tangled seatbelt, sending a chill through me from the slight contact. As he drove Big Red through the city’s rolling, palm tree–covered hills, he recited random useless tidbits about San Diego, such as the name of the city’s oldest sandwich shop.
“I’ve never been the gatekeeper of important knowledge,” he joked, “but I am the Albert Einstein of pointless facts.”
He took me to Mount Soledad, a small mountain near Pacific Beach that is full of some of San Diego’s wealthiest citizens. From there, we could see the entire city and a bit of Mexico. It was a pretty view, typical for a date, and there were several other people sightseeing. I leaned against a railing, my face in the sun, and stared into the distance as Dan spouted a pleasant something about the historic discovery of San Diego. He rambled on amusingly about growing up in the country and the best friends he’d had since elementary school.
I didn’t recognize how much his charm had distracted from other important details until he was long out of my life; at the time, I was too entranced by his chivalrous waltz of door-opening, drink-paying, and nose-diving for my dropped water-bottle cap. But though he talked about the Big Wheels he’d played with as a kid, he never mentioned where he lived or who he associated with, and he never could remember my career aspirations or my home state.
Dan was nice. Because he performed the courtesies I was raised to require as a bare minimum, I latched onto him like a leech. By the time he dropped me off that night, my tongue was halfway down his throat.
It turned out that Dan, my countryish, useless-fact-knowing, Big Red–driving boy next door, was a meth addict. I never would have pegged him as that. And when I reflect now on our relationship, I realize that that’s exactly what being with him felt like — the unhealthy, dehydrating, emotional tornado that defines a meth addiction. The man who gave me vivid images of his elementary-schoolteacher mother, of camping with his childhood buddies and teaching his brother how to build Lego forts, was the first hit of a drug that I was later willing to drain my savings account to get more of.
My Dan high drifted into the day after our date. Giddy, I downloaded, listened, and hummed to his favorite music as I cleaned my apartment and visualized our future together.
But trouble in my paradise came quick. I learned that, like many San Diegans, Dan was a flake.
He had a habit of dropping off the face of the earth. He swore that his meth addiction was in the past, that he was getting help, but I later found out that the addiction had everything to do with his behavior. In the beginning, I told myself that he was just a guy from a laid-back beach city where never following through with plans was part of the culture. I was an outsider from a land of plan-making and calling before canceling, a world where people cared about things like timeliness. Therefore, it was my job to adjust to the environment I’d chosen to live in. I would be cool and not care about the way Dan acted. Suffering inside, I would pretend not to.
Whenever I did show the slightest inkling of any emotion, stress, say, or frustration, whether it was directed at him or not, Dan seemed afraid. “Shh… settle down,” he’d say, covering my mouth with his fingers, as if calming a hyperactive puppy that was jumping up in his face.
Dan was full of promises and plans for the fun things we’d do together. “I have to take you out in my kayak sometime,” he’d say. “Oh, and we’ll have to take Big Red off-roading out in Ramona.”
He eagerly volunteered to help me get some furniture out of storage. But I had a bad feeling he would not keep his word and made sure to double check on his plans the night before. When he told me things were “good to go,” I eased up.
“Relax, Maggie,” I said to myself. “He’s a good guy.” Then I’d repeat Dan’s phrase in my mind: “Settle down, Maggie.”
The next day, Dan was MIA.
“I’m so, so sorry,” he stammered a few days later. “I had pneumonia and took these strong sleeping pills. I was completely passed out. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”
“Oh, it’s totally fine,” I faked. “I understand. It’s cool.”
But Dan’s disappearing act — flee town, then come down — continued until the end.
My post-Dan rebound was a 32-year-old musician name Ty. Despite the band thing, on paper he seemed like a legitimate adult. He was an entire decade older than me, attractive, standing about five-foot-ten, with black hair and tanned skin. He had a masters degree in computer science and worked as an exchange engineer. He lived in his own bachelor pad conveniently located five blocks from me. Our normal routine was to meet about halfway between our apartments on warm, breezy nights, then head back to his place. Unlike Dan, Ty didn’t squirm at commitment. He feigned it. It only took a month for him to ask me to move in with him, offering to pay all of my rent and college tuition. In return, he wanted me to strut around in high heels with a vacuum and a frying pan. Stupefied, I realized that I’d yet to see him sober. When he told me that he loved me, but couldn’t remember my last name, I knew it was time to cut the cord.
And now came a disastrous summer of San Diego dating, after which I felt schooled on spotting red flags. Substance abuse, a lack of ambition, and entrapment were only the most obvious warning signs.
I needed to follow the advice of my elders and pursue a healthy, sober, active young man with a career.
Ryder fit the profile.
Twenty-nine-year-old Ryder stood six-foot-four with a lean, muscular physique. He had a pretty, boyish face, chocolate-brown eyes, and a tanned, Southern California–born face. His thick, brown hair curled into shaggy ringlets. He looked like a younger and hotter John Corbett, the actor who played Aiden on Sex and the City.
Ryder’s athleticism had scored him a basketball scholarship to the California Maritime Academy in San Francisco right after high school, and although he smoked, drank, and occasionally dabbled in a line of cocaine, he was an overall healthy guy. He worked out on a regular basis and was always in a basketball or football league. Ryder worked as operation’s manager at the Port of San Diego. I had no idea what that meant, but I did notice he had no problem dropping a couple grand at Nieman Marcus on any given Tuesday. He was usually sharply dressed in dark blazers and designer jeans, or khaki shorts with white cotton shirts that hung open for a breezy day at the beach. He had brooding, intense facial expressions and smirks, and not a hint of carefree happiness. From everything I could tell, Ryder was self-composed, arrogant, and God damn beautiful. In other words, he was a catch. He was also treacherous territory to any woman who dared to give a damn.
Ryder toured me through his one-bedroom apartment. It was basic but expensive, and immaculately clean — to this day, I wonder what kind of fabric softener he used. The digs reflected his personality. They were attractive, sleek, and well put together, but lacked uniqueness. His walls, carpets, and much of the furniture were white. The rest of the décor was black. The bit of artwork on his walls was black and white. When he handed me a beer, I was terrified of spilling it.
It didn’t take much time to realize that a relationship with Ryder was less likely than my future presidency, although to be fair, he was blunt about the fact that his romantic relationships didn’t last long.
“I’m usually done with a woman as soon as I bang her,” he admitted.
“Oh! This is my favorite show!” he interrupted himself, as Two and a Half Men popped onto the plasma screen. If you don’t know it, this show is about two brothers, Charlie and Alan. Alan is a freshly divorced father who ends up having to live with his wealthy, playboy brother. Alan is a faithful, devoted husband and father who gets screwed over by his domineering ex-wife and is presented as dorky and weak. He is almost always the butt of the show’s jokes. Charlie, on the other hand, is a successful commercial music writer who barely works. He sips margaritas all day at his Malibu beach house and bangs an ungodly number of idiotic women. Nearly every female character on this show is either a raging bitch or borderline retarded. Two and a Half Men is a male fantasy, and Charlie is the hero that most male viewers, including Ryder, idolize.
“I’m going to be just like that guy when I’m 40,” Ryder laughed.
Ryder was exceptionally open with me about the many women he’d snagged. “Oh my God,” he said, rolling his eyes after checking his phone. “This slut will not leave me alone.”
Holding his cell out for my inspection, he flipped through photos of a firm, bare, flawless ass, a black, lacy thong running right up the crack.
“I’ve been ignoring this chick for a week. But she can’t take a hint.”
After Ryder, I began to divide San Diego men into three categories. First, there were the mediocre, underachieving lads, like Dan. They’re supposed to be the nice guys, with their unleashed bits of warm, gentlemanly charm. And because that sort of treatment is unusual in this area, women sink their teeth into them like a starving, stray dog scarfing table scraps — even if the scraps are moldy and stale.
Next there were the guys like Ty, eager for commitment, but damaged and in need of mothering. The Tys are dangerous territory for ladies fed up with monogamy phobics.
Finally, there were the men like Ryder. These present such a rare, together package that they exert a gravitational pull on all females in proximity, and that allows Ryders to relish the endless merry-go-round of available snatch.
They all share one attribute: immaturity.
A girlfriend of mine once said that Southern California men had Peter Pan Syndrome.
“They don’t want to grow up,” she told me. “And So-Cal’s sunny beaches, stacked with gorgeous, insecure women, are their Neverland.”
We were drinking cocktails and bitching about our dating frustrations. At the time, I was still seeing Dan and stressing over one of his MIA episodes.
“He says he’s not ready for a relationship.” I rolled my eyes. “He’s twenty-freaking-eight years old and not that attractive. What the hell is he holding out for?”
“Funny how they always give you the ‘I’m not ready for a serious relationship’ line after they have sex with you, never before,” she scoffed.
My friend’s theory about Peter Pan Syndrome is that, because Southern California is so full of beautiful women, women are held to a higher physical standard and, therefore, have significantly steeper competition than in other areas of the country. Your self-esteem takes a blow. Then, with so many stunners in So-Cal, the men become spoiled. They can toss any one woman aside knowing that another will come right along. Already insecure, the ladies tolerate it, so men rarely feel the need to work for a monogamous relationship. They get bored easily. They want more.
More is always at their fingertips.
At 23, I left San Diego to venture north to UC Berkeley, an entire planet apart from the southland’s counterparts. Then I traveled the world, eventually landing back in the American South, a region with its own cultural flaws. I did, however, acquire higher-quality dates there than in my party-girl heyday. I still encountered Peter Pans, but not as intensely or frequently as in San Diego.
I assumed that my lower infection levels had more to do with my age than my location: a 22-year-old will put up with a hell of a lot more crap than a 28-year-old.
Meanwhile, I kept tabs with my San Diego sisters. They told me amusingly horrific tales of the mating rituals of Neverland.
There was Yolanda’s stint with Pablo, a 30-year-old Navy veteran who resided in a Spring Valley bachelor pad of five men. Pablo spent his evenings demanding that a rotation of obedient women fetch his beers and make him sandwiches.
There was Tiger, my ravishing, tattooed, punk-rock Barbie doll friend, who was unexpectedly dumped by her hobbit boyfriend. “He said he couldn’t imagine being with the same person forever,” she said of the birthday-breakup fiasco. “I had no idea. We had amazing chemistry and never talked about marriage. He just assumed that’s what I wanted. I noticed that he had a wandering eye, but I tried not to think much of it until he ended it.”
My friend Jaclyn, a busty brunette beauty and current Playboy employee, reflected on her San Diego dating days as a bigger girl with trauma and bitterness. “I eventually lost the weight after a series of insane diets and surgery,” she said in a jaded tone. “But when I lived in San Diego, I was a plus-size model, and that environment made me loathe myself. I worked hard. I made straight A’s in college. I was ambitious, but I never felt smart, skinny, or pretty enough. [Extra] weight is extremely looked down upon. When I was able to get a boyfriend, I felt used. I was always picking up the tab or forking over their car payments.”
“Look how popular Charlie Sheen is,” pointed out Bailey, a 31-year-old San Diego resident who recently separated from a 45-year-old Peter Pan. “This is who even middle-aged men are looking up to.”
“All it takes is a stroll down the Garnett strip to see it,” said Yolanda. “There’s always those tanned, greased-up 35-year-olds pounding shots on a Monday afternoon.”
Even the 50- and 60-something mothers of friends were dealing with seniors who didn’t want to be tied down. “My last boyfriend told me our relationship wasn’t going anywhere,” Melinda, a twice-divorced 58-year-old mother, said of an ex she’d dated steadily for three years. “My response was ‘You’re 70. Where the hell can it go?’”
And while every San Diego female I’ve spoken to swears the city is infested with Peter Pans, every male admits to being one, or having been one in the past.
“Peter Pan syndrome is absolutely worse in San Diego,” admits Dane, a 35-year-old man who is a recovering Peter Pan. “Up until last October, my goal in life was to bang as many girls as possible. I’m from Northern California, and there’s more pressure there to find a wife while you’re in your 20s. In San Diego, you’re not as pushed to become an adult. You’re actually afraid of it. You’re in denial of your age.”
Is San Diego the ideal Neverland? Many I’ve talked to say yes.
“Most people tend to get more promiscuous in the summertime,” Bailey says. “They’re in vacation mode. They’re going to parties, traveling out of town, and wearing more revealing clothing. They couple-up more during the colder seasons — but then there are no seasons in San Diego. It’s always summer.”
“There’s a lot of trust fund babies with no responsibilities here,” says Jaclyn, who now lives in Los Angeles. “Cities like L.A. and San Francisco are more cutthroat. People are pursuing their careers, and you have to really fight to survive. But San Diego is where so many rich people go to retire. They’ve got their overgrown momma’s boys hanging around with no ambition and plenty of cash at their disposal.”
Lisa, a 32-year-old San Diego lifer, says that tourism and new residents are major contributors to the Neverland atmosphere. “Not only is San Diego a big vacation spot, but people come from all over the country to live here. This is a major military town. That brings in a lot of young guys who want to party. People come to have a good time at the beach, not to buckle down and start a family.”
There may be a lot of Peter Pans in San Diego, but there is a corresponding glut of young, thin, tight, busty, and easy-to-nail Wendys.
“I don’t think all San Diego men are assholes,” Yolanda explains. “They just have such a huge pool of pretty girls to choose from. This isn’t family-oriented Wisconsin. San Diego is all about partying and getting tan, five-foot-seven blondes with big tits and gorgeous bodies. Can you blame them? The people make up a big part of San Diego’s scenery.”
Every female I interviewed swore that the Peter Pan Syndrome was the result of more females than males, but the U.S. Census Bureau disagrees. In 2012, there were 2.57 percent more males than females in San Diego.
Seeing that, I remembered why my friends and I always called it Man Diego.
My days in San Diego were anything but traditional. Southern California beach life was wild and free. It was the norm for women to strut outdoors in bikinis under the continuously blazing sun. Everyone kept their sexuality out in the open, like liberated flower children. Men weren’t expected to court women, to pay for things, or even to keep to their plans. Monogamy was practiced by few.
And yet, for some reason, the girls I’ve known believed they needed men. And I was one of them, one of the many who willingly and repeatedly were treated like crap. Why did we put up with it?
My female peers and I grew up believing that males have an innate advantage: since women have nearly 30 to 40 fewer baby-making years than men, our gender feels more pressure to settle down and procreate. Women, we’ve been told, are programmed to nurture, men to spread their seed. Men are sexual, women are emotional. Our one little bit of power is the ability to call the shots on the when and where of getting it on.
But with power comes responsibility. It is our duty to insist on morality in intimacy, a tricking proposition. If we spread our legs too late, we’re prudes. Too soon, and we’re whores. Men slut-shame us. We slut-shame each other. And we slut-shame ourselves.
There are probably dozens of ways for Wendys to dodge the Peter Pans of Neverland. Ditch trendy bars for art shows, museums, or coffee shops. Or leave Neverland altogether for the realities of chilly winters and belly bloat wrapped in Christmas sweaters. Or, ironically, celebrate a root cause of Peter Pan Syndrome: women do not need men.